Asked if he had ever asked God, in the words of Christ on the cross, “Why have you forsaken me?” Cardinal Pell responded “No …But I have said ‘My God, my God, what are you up to?’”
When George Cardinal Pell was acquitted in an Australian High Court during Holy Week, many regarded this decision as miraculous. So do I.
His season in the belly of the beast lasted nearly five years. And I must say, after spending considerable time covering criminal cases in Canada and the UK, it always appeared to me that he was being framed to cover the crimes of others — not in Australia but in Italy.
Nor was I alone in my assumptions. When his tortured odyssey began in 2015, Pell was working to implement much needed reform at the Vatican Bank. As such, he was leading a critical investigation into the bank known as the Institute for the Works of Religion, or IOR, where he was fast becoming persona non grata as he chipped away at the bank’s convoluted system of financial management in a quest for transparency and compliance with banking standards. Beginning when the Prefecture for the Economy uncovered an attempt in 2014 to hide off-the-books loans which prompted Pell to demand details of the loans. This enraged then-Archbishop Becciu who, in 2016, would be instrumental in bringing a halt to the Vatican financial reforms Pell had initiated. This while Pell was raising more financial flags elsewhere over attempts to disguise the loans at the Council for the Economy.
Although Pope Francis had given the newly created Prefecture for the Economy autonomous authority over Vatican finances, Becciu complicated matters when, without the pontiff’s permission, he cancelled a planned external audit by PriceWaterhouseCooper and announced to all Vatican departments that it would not take place. In turn, Pell challenged the audit’s cancellation, but Becciu prevailed and the audit never took place.
Amidst this murky business, Cardinal Pell also found himself in further hot water for presenting Pope Francis with a letter signed by himself and twelve other senior cardinals gently criticizing a preparatory document — the Instrumentum Laboris — for the Synod on the Family which the cardinals said needed “reworking” because it could not adequately serve as a guiding text or the foundation of a final document. The various fathers were also concerned that a synod designed to address a vital pastoral matter – reinforcing the dignity of marriage and family – might be dominated by the theological/doctrinal issue of Communion for the divorced and civilly remarried.
In response to this challenge, the pontiff was said to be very unhappy.
Deeper into the Woods
Meanwhile, as the Australian cardinal with the stellar reputation continued his investigations into Vatican banking, he was being investigated by police in Australia where, in September 2016, he suddenly became the target of accusations and then charges of the sexual abuse of two choirboys in the late 1990s, raising suspicions among those who knew him well that this matter was not at all what it appeared be.
And while the charges were prompting countless journalists to pile on Pell with glee, the charges were prompting outrage from journalists sceptical of Pell’s guilt. Such as Sky News host Andrew Bolt who called Cardinal Pell’s prosecution “one of the greatest miscarriages of justice” in Australian history.
Father Nicholas Rynne, a priest of the Sydney archdiocese and former solicitor, expressed similar sentiments: “It was not possible for Cardinal Pell to receive a fair trial in this country — a fact that was probably obvious to certain nefarious individuals in Italy, where Cardinal Pell was sifting through the Vatican’s bank accounts at the time he was charged.”
And, as the storm was intensifying around Pell in 2017, Vatican commentator George Weigel was also wondering out loud whether the charges had anything to do with Vatican financial reform.
“George Pell has many enemies in Australia, political and ecclesiastical. They and their allies in the Aussie electronic and print media have indulged in a campaign of vilification against him for decades, charging him with everything from vanity to bullying,” Weigel wrote in 2017. “It’s all rubbish. But in the past few years, as the longstanding anti-Pell campaign has gone into overdrive with allegations of sexual abuse, there has been another dimension to this drama that should be flagged. Cardinal Pell has been relentless and, in an Italian context, shockingly straightforward and bold in his pursuit of Vatican financial reform, which Pope Francis brought him from Sydney to Rome to design, implement, and oversee. It is not unreasonable to imagine — indeed, it’s more than likely — that as his reforms began to threaten serious financial (and perhaps legal) consequences for the miscreants, those determined to maintain the status quo from which they had richly benefited, took care to try to derail Cardinal Pell by fostering more false allegations in Australia, where, as I’ve just noted, poisoned ground for the reception of such calumnies had been well prepared.”
How the Case Unfolded
Here’s a brief background. In 2013, the Victoria Police established a task force, Operation Tethering, designed to investigate Cardinal Pell before there was any complaint against him. Using a series of advertisements, police were seeking complaints of sexual assault at St.Patrick’s Cathedral Melbourne – a measure previously unheard of by Australian police and bracketing the dates Cardinal Pell had been archbishop there. Eventually, a complainant later known as Witness J contacted them and alleged he and another choirboy were abused at St. Patrick’s in 1996. Now in his 30s, Witness J said he felt compelled to come forward after the death of the second choirboy in 2014 of a heroin overdose.
At the time of this complaint, Cardinal Pell was the best known Catholic in Australia. He had been Archbishop of Melbourne (1996-2001) and Archbishop of Sydney (2001-2014) – Australia’s two largest cities. It was also during those early years in Melbourne that Pell established the Melbourne Response, the first scheme in the world to address sexual abuse by priests and religious. During those terms in Melbourne, and later Sydney, Cardinal Pell was also responsible for numerous priests being removed from ministry, over thirty in Melbourne alone. But as a key witness before the Royal Commission, he also bore the brunt of criticism of the Church’s failure to act on complaints by children and their parents, and the Church’s moving offenders to locations where they were not known.
Yet Pell was also well known for his willingness to engage in intellectual debate in the media and in the universities, though he was much hated by Australia’s gay lobby for his defence of marriage as between a man and a woman. In 2018 Australia legislated for same-sex marriage.
The cardinal was reputed as a reformer as well. Reinvigorating the seminaries, refurbishing St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Melbourne, and St Mary’s Cathedral in Sydney, reforming the Australian Catholic University and establishing the University of Notre Dame in Sydney, Cardinal Pell’s accomplishments have been formidable. As Archbishop of Sydney, he wrote a weekly column for Sydney’s Sunday Telegraph as well and is the author of several books making the case for Catholicism. And he is said to have a wide circle of friends, both Catholic and non-Catholic, making him – in this age at least – a controversial figure, both loved and hated within and outside the Church.
And as indicated above, Cardinal Pell was living and working in Rome seeking to reform Vatican finances when, in 2016, Pell voluntarily participated in an interview with Victoria Police in Rome where he denied the allegations that had emerged against him. Then, in 2017, Pell voluntarily returned to Australia to face charges – initially 26 of them from nine accusers. But most were so bizarre they were thrown out in a preliminary hearing, leaving the Melbourne allegations as the most credible of the lot and despite the fact the logistics of the charges made them all but impossible to have been committed.
In essence, this was a simple case in which the complainant made uncorroborated allegations, and the defendant denied those allegations. Pell’s defence also presented over 20 witnesses – whose evidence was not challenged by the prosecution and when demonstrated physically showed the allegations could not have occurred as described, or even at all. The assaults were said to have taken place in the sacristy at St Patrick’s Cathedral on 15 or 22 December 1996 after Solemn High Mass – during a six-minute period when the cardinal was in full vestments and the sacristy was full of altar boys and concelebrating priests. Yet those altar boys and priests were not interviewed by police. Nor was any explanation provided for this failure, despite the fact that Australian police have an obligation to interview all relevant witnesses.
Nevertheless, the case was allowed to proceed despite the fact it rested entirely on the unsupported allegations of two complainants, one deceased. In addition, the mother of the deceased accuser testified that her son’s accusations had been a lie all along. The jury heard that the deceased man’s mother asked him in 2001 if he’d ever been “interfered with or touched up” while he was in the choir in Melbourne. She said her son said no, and that he had also told his father he’d never been “sexually assaulted or mistreated by any person.”
Facing five charges of sexual abuse against the two choirboy accusers, Pell’s first trial began August 15, 2018. Weeks later, the jury was discharged without a verdict and a retrial was ordered. The retrial began November 7, 2018, and a month later, Pell was found guilty on all five charges, based on the untested claims of the two accusers.
The day after his conviction, Pell was removed from the Vatican’s C9 Council of Cardinals, an international advisory body set up by Pope Francis. And on February 27, 2019, the Vatican dropped Pell as its finance chief.
Two weeks later, on March 13, 2019, Pell was sentenced to six years in prison for sexually abusing the two choirboys and immediately appealed the conviction.
The appeal was heard in June 2019 by a three-judge panel of Victoria’s Supreme Court where Pell told the judges: “These matters have been under investigation now for nearly two years. There have been leaks to the media, relentless character assassination. . . .I repeat that I am innocent of these charges. They are false. The whole idea of sexual abuse is abhorrent to me… I have been consistent and clear in my total rejection of these allegations. News of these charges strengthens my resolve, and court proceedings now offer me an opportunity to clear my name and then return to my work in Rome.”
Despite an astonishing lack of evidence, however, Pell’s appeal was dismissed in a 2-1 decision, with the dissenting justice, Mark Weinberg, warning of a “significant possibility” that Pell was innocent and explaining that he found it “impossible to accept” the sole accuser’s testimony, which, uncorroborated, may have been “concocted.”
A month later, Pell lodged another appeal with the Australian High Court which convened in March of this year to hear his case. Which is when, on April 7 – and against all predictions – the panel unanimously quashed Pell’s five convictions and the cardinal left prison to the cheers of other inmates after just over a year behind bars, much of it in solitary confinement.
In response, several media outlets, who had treated him viciously throughout the proceedings, agreed that the High Court had been right in its decision because the case against Pell rested entirely upon the unsupported allegations of one complainant whose version of events could not possibly have occurred within the six-minute window the prosecution said it did because of the number of adults moving around the cathedral and the priest’s sacristy.
This was the same observation Cardinal Pell had made during his interview with police in Rome when first confronted with the allegations against him: “I can demonstrate that’s impossible,” he stated at the time.
Acquittal and Beyond
Cardinal Pell’s acquittal came on Tuesday of Holy Week, the week of Our Lord’s Passion. Astonishing timing! And prompting widespread joy among so many Catholics who, convinced of the cardinal’s innocence, had been praying for years, literally, that the Lord God’s will be done in this case.
And it was done! Hallelujah!
As for the freed cardinal, he said he was most looking forward to being able to say Holy Mass again every morning which he’d been denied in prison.
His long period of anguished suffering had also given him plenty of time for deep prayer and reflection on what happened to him and its meaning, some thoughts of which he revealed in recent interviews. Along with some questions.
As for how he coped in prison, Cardinal Pell says his inner peace was not disturbed because he knew he was innocent. But also, as Father Raymond de Souza noted in a recent column, “Cardinal Pell’s answer clarified what is true for Christians, above all during Holy Week. The suffering, even death, of the innocent is not a theological problem for Christians. If Jesus, innocent of all sin, could be falsely condemned to death, then the suffering of the innocent does not pose a challenge to the faith on a theological level.”
But there are still many questions about what really happened to him. And who, if anyone, arranged it. What, for example, was the motivation for his accuser to lie? Was it a threat? Or was it a financial incentive? (my words). For his part, the cardinal described his accuser as a “poor fellow” who may have been “used”. Asked why he thinks the complainant made the allegations, Pell responded simply: “I don’t know. I wonder whether he was used. I don’t know what this poor fellow was up to,” though he offered no insight into whom the complainant may have been used by.
Yet, in his now famous Holy Saturday interview with Sky News host Andrew Bolt, Pell did not dismiss a Vatican connection behind the charges against him. Still, when asked by Bolt how high the corruption goes, the cardinal responded: “Who knows?”
When asked whether Pell had ever considered that the trouble he was causing for corrupt officials in the Vatican related to the troubles he experienced in Australia, Pell responded: “Most of the senior people in Rome who are in any way sympathetic to financial reform believe that they are.” Nor did he deny that, during his exhaustive probe into the Vatican bank, he had discovered genuine corruption. Hence the efforts to disable the reforms by those in danger of being exposed, and confirmed subsequently by several stories late last year by The Financial Times about suspect and secret investments which his team had worked tenaciously to oppose.
Nevertheless, Pell was careful to point out that he had no hard evidence of a link between his work at the Vatican and his subsequent conviction in Australia. Nor was there any hard evidence that as the battle to beat back his reforms was at its peak in 2016-2017, and the Victoria police were ramping up their efforts to “get Pell,” – as revealed in his court proceedings – these two apparently unrelated matters were anything more than coincidental.
Even so, Pell did say he was pleased that much of the financial corruption at the Vatican is being exposed and that it has now been shown that he had opposed such corruption while in Rome.
“One of my fears was that what we had done would remain hidden for ten years or so, that it would be revealed and then the baddies would say ‘well Pell and Casey were in charge then they turned a blind eye or did nothing to it’,” he said. “Now thanks be to God that’s all gone, because there was a flurry of articles just before Christmas and around Christmas exposing all sorts of things, like a disastrous purchase, actually a couple of them in London, and it was very clearly demonstrated that we tenaciously opposed those things. What we were pushing and saying has been massively vindicated.”
Bolt also questioned Pell about his relationship with Pope Francis, given their differing theological views and positions on issues such as “climate change”, but Pell said he had received Pope Francis’ support.
Asked further by Bolt about why some of his fellow Australian archbishops had failed to give him clear support, Pell replied: “That’s life. But actually what was surprising was even my theological opponents in Rome didn’t believe the stories.”
Now 79, and retired by the Vatican in 2019, it remains to be seen what this highly competent, God-centred priest will do next with his God-granted freedom.
About which perhaps George Weigel had the last word as his friend was being released: “Throughout this ordeal, Cardinal George Pell has been a model of patience, and indeed a model of priestly character. Knowing that he is innocent, he was free even when incarcerated. And he put that time to good use — “an extended retreat,” as he called it — cheering his many friends throughout the world and intensifying an already-vigorous life of prayer, study, and writing. Now that he can, at last, celebrate the Mass again, I’ve no doubt that he will make, among his intentions, the conversion of his persecutors and the renewal of justice in the country he loves.”
Yet a week later it was obvious that Weigel was still thinking hard on what he and the world had just witnessed: “An innocent man was freed from imprisonment. The criminal justice system in the State of Victoria was informed by Australia’s supreme judicial authority that it had gotten things badly wrong. The anti-Pell haters in the Australian media were reminded that their power has limits. Yet there remains a lot to be reckoned with in the aftermath of this case, which bore all the tawdry hallmarks of a witch hunt.”
Which makes me think the story of Cardinal Pell’s persecution isn’t over …